The Weed Economy

By: | Posted in: Industrial Era / Social Era | Thursday, Jan 19, 2012 - 5:50pm

No, not that weed economy; I’m at least 20 years beyond making that particular case.

The ‘weed’ I’m referring to is the Industrial Era notion that some things belong and are useful and some things…well, don’t.

[A weed is] a plant that is considered by the user of the term to be a nuisance, and normally applied to unwanted plants in human-controlled settings, especially farm fields and gardens, but also lawns, parks, woods, and other areas. More specifically, the term is often used to describe any plants that grow and reproduce aggressively. Generally, a weed is a plant in an undesired place. (from Wikipedia)

Stated more broadly: a weed is any object, behavior, thought or emotion that does not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy (in it’s original meaning, ‘Orthodoxy’ is the true or right opinions/beliefs as established by some authority).


Last week, friend and master chef Bun Lai posted a picture of a new sushi dish he’s created using Mugwort, a plant that is usually considered a weed, and therefore useless. Bun’s restaurant is in an open-ended conversation about what it is to eat in a way that is sustainable while still being enjoyable. Over the past year or so, this conversation has opened up an exploration of what is possible in terms of rethinking what can and can’t be eaten. In other words, an exploration has opened up that questions the orthodoxy of what ‘food’ is. While in a very different context, this exploration aligns with much of the exploration of what ‘work’ is that led to the Trip-Soy Era.

There is no plant that is a ‘weed’ in and of itself; it is a weed only because we can find no use for it. It is not the fault of the plant but of the gardener – and the gardener’s orthodoxy – that a particular plant exists as ‘weed’. In nature, there is no such thing as ‘weed’, everything has it’s place and even invasive species are, over a long enough time horizon, incorporated into the ecosystem – though the ecosystem may become radically transformed in the process.

The point is, in the physical world we’ve inherited, everything belongs….but in the psychological world we’ve constructed, only those things belong that fit the orthodoxy – the script if you will – that we’re working off of.

My script from my parents tells me that an adult works hard and carves out a place for himself in the material world; and so a desire in me – or anyone else – to be at ease, to enjoy the days and to give up the striving for ‘more’ is seen by me as a weed I call lazy. And this weed must be rooted out.

My script from the men who speak for my God tells me that only a man and a woman can have a loving relationship; and so homosexual desire or behavior is a weed I call sin. And this weed must be rooted out.

My script from society tells me that To Know – to be an Expert and to have every aspect of a topic thoroughly understood – is an ultimate good, a basis for authority and power; and so open-ended exploration, play and Art are a weed I call unproductive. And this weed must be rooted out.

My script from educational and business institutions tells me that Control and Predictability are not only possible, but highly desirable – in fact they are the very point of my profession, whatever my profession may be; and so ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity are weeds I call risk. And this weed must be rooted out.

 As I’ve discussed in many previous posts, we are in the very early stages of the most fundamental transformation of our social and economic lives in six centuries. Over the last 300 years of that time – the Industrial Era – we have made enormous material progress. In medicine, chemistry, engineering, economics, and every other discipline (orthodoxy), we have advanced beyond all imagination and have significantly improved the physical aspects of day-to-day life. But the path to this improved life has been littered with weeds.

Because it did not fit neatly into the scripts that we created to provide this better material life, we have excluded much of the world around us….and even more of the world within us. We have ‘weed-ified’ too much, we have left too much – and too many – out of the game, we have erred too far in the direction of structure and process and control and predictability.


But new players are in the game. There is a generation of entrepreneurs and artists and activists (and, in the case of Bun, chefs) that are reclaiming the weeds, that are inviting them back into play, that are creating economic value from what the Industrial Era called waste, that are building networks and tools for weeds to congregate and collaborate and create in ways that are wholly unpredictable and uncontrollable. The Occupy movement is a reflection of this. The Gay Rights movement is a reflection of this. Facebook/Twitter are reflections of this. Collaborative Consumption is a reflection of this. So many more are popping up each week that I can no longer keep track of them all (they’re growing like…).

My point is not to advocate for an ‘anything goes’, orthodoxy-free world; nor is it to offend the specific orthodoxies/scripts that anyone chooses to live by. What I’m looking at here is:

  1. the tendency for us to treat as useless that which does not fit within our personal/societal orthodoxy and
  2. the possibility that in the world that is emerging, a source – perhaps the greatest source – of value and growth and sustainability lies in transforming society’s ‘weeds’ into useful plants; NOT by transforming the nature of the ‘weed’ itself but by expanding our games, our scripts, our orthodoxies, to include these weeds as legitimate players that generate value and are a source of growth

What are your – and your organization’s – orthodoxies?

What – and who – have you declared to be ‘weeds’ in your organization and in your life?

What about in yourself; what parts of you keep insisting on sprouting up even though you have labeled them as unwanted, undesirable, and a nuisance?

These weeds must not be rooted out, they must be included.